Cowboy Talk

The word “cowboy” has deep historic roots. In 1725 Dublin-born satirist and author Jonathan Swift first used it in print to describe (what else) a boy tending cows, and the word caught on in Britain in the early 19th century, perhaps replacing the earlier “cowherd” (like “shepherd”). In the latter half of the century the word “grew up” in the American West, referring to the mostly men who tended cattle on horseback, much as the vaqueros (a Spanish word for cowherds) had long been doing across New Spain (Mexico and California). The term remains common in the 21st century West, even if the cow herders of today also use trucks, drones, smartphone aps and GPS to do their jobs. But cowboying has long been about more than just the men doing that particular brand of work.

When boys and some girls out West and back East in the 1950s and ’60s played cowboys, they mostly pretended to ride and shoot, not drive or corral bovines. After all, many classic TV cowboys had what we kids considered more interesting occupations—poker playing for the Maverick brothers, bounty hunting for Josh Randall, traveling with gun for Paladin, laying down the law for Marshals Matt Dillon and Dan Troop, wagon train scouting for Flint McCollough or just wandering the West to do heroic things for Cheyenne Bodie. Of course, there were exceptions, such as trail boss Gil Favor and ramrod Rowdy Yates (who kept them dogies rollin’) and the affluent Cartwright and Barkley ranching families (though cattle never seemed their main concern).

I, for one, always wanted to be Cochise when a friend and I played our offshoot of the TV show Broken Arrow. Is that “cultural appropriation”? Oh, never mind…

What these small-screen cowboys had in common was a love of adventure and justice, so it was only natural we wanted to be like them. Yes, they shot people, but almost always the bad guys. Otherwise, they dealt squarely with most everyone—Indians, blacks (when they made rare appearances), Chinese, women, children, horses, dogs and the LGBT community (well, at least Paladin treated playwright Oscar Wilde right in a 1958 episode of Have Gun, Will Travel). I certainly beg to differ with anyone who says that playing cowboys and Indians was “racist playtime.” I, for one, always wanted to be Cochise when a friend and I played our offshoot of the TV show Broken Arrow. Is that “cultural appropriation”? Oh, never mind…

There is a point to this nostalgic interlude. I grew up thinking “cowboy” equated to good guy, whether he was serenading cows on the range or confronting bad guys in Dodge City. Thus at some stage in my upbringing I became shocked to learn that the badmen who opposed Wyatt Earp (the ultimate Western good guy in the reel West and on the side of law and order in real Tombstone) were known as the Cowboys. That den of outlaws is the subject of award-winning author John Boessenecker’s cover story. “In the wake of their depredations,” he reminds us, “the formerly innocuous term ‘cowboy’ became a dirty word in Arizona and New Mexico territories.”

Of course, I’ve had ample time for the notion of cowboys being bad guys to sink in. Although some people argue the Clanton and McLaury Cowboy brothers were just another faction opposed to the Earp faction in Tombstone, Boessenecker is not one of them. He considers the Cowboys the largest outlaw gang in the American West—a “loosely organized band of some 200 to 300 desperados that raided freely on both sides of the Mexican border.” At first the law (think Sheriff John Behan) mostly let them be, although the Cowboys sometimes fought with each other and also battled Mexican troopers and vaqueros. Then along came Wyatt Earp, brothers Virgil and Morgan and Doc Holliday—and later Wyatt’s vendetta posse—to break up the Cowboy gang.

In our modern-day world “cowboy” doesn’t necessarily mean a good guy, either. The term is applicable to a person who heedlessly undertakes a dangerous or sensitive task, a wild young man, a tradesman who produces shoddy work, a reckless driver and an unsophisticated rural person. Drugstore cowboys are pretend cowboys. Until my teen years I definitely was a pretend cowboy growing up in the East, though I never saw that as a bad thing. I later spent considerable time out West, but I never came close to becoming a real cowboy. At least I can write about them. WW

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire’s next historical novel, Man From Montana, comes out in April 2021. His earlier novels include 2019’s Our Frontier Pastime: 1804–1815 and 2014’s Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly. His short story “Halfway to Hell” appears in the 2018 anthology The Trading Post and Other Frontier Stories.